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Friday, 2 December 1983
Page: 3257

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(3.32) —The Senate is debating cognately the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Bill , the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill and the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill. I will direct my attention to the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill. The issue of government funding of non- government schools really raises fundamental questions regarding the future direction of education in Australia. Does the state have an absolute monopoly and right of control over all education in Australia? Should this control reach out and touch every parent and every student? Should that domination extend to eliminating parents' choice of education for their children? The legislation now before us seeks to extend that influence, not by government fiat but rather by manipulating the distribution of public funds and through the selective application of taxpayers' money.

Are not the needs of children and the rights of parents to choose the education they think best for the children worthy of consideration by the policy makers? Are all the prejudices and jaundiced policy decisions, as is the case with this Government, to be based solely on the ideological requirements of teachers' unions and federations and the socialist desires for a monolithic state education system? Are people to be supported in their desires and personal endeavours to make very considerable personal sacrifice to achieve what they feel is the best education for their children? Should not encouragement be given to those parents who seek and strive to contribute materially, themselves, to the cost of educating their children? This Government's position on these questions is clearly expressed by the provisions of this Bill, which seeks to cut the basic grant to 41 non-government schools, to deny registered non- government schools the right to automatic government support, and by removing the nexus between the cost of educating a student at a government school and the level of funding for non-government schools it paves the way for ever decreasing allocations of funds to non-government schools.

Most Australians oppose the Government's stand on this issue, as was shown in a recent gallup poll in which 52 per cent of people did not believe that the Government was right to cut financial assistance to non-government schools. Obviously the Australian Labor Party is aware of that feeling on this issue, which is no doubt why, during the election campaign, it went out of its way to reassure parents that there would be no cutback in the assistance to non- government schools. Yet only nine months ago the Government promised:

Funding at present levels will be maintained during the period of time required to allow the Schools Commission to determine the community standard and to allow schools, in the light of that determination to make their decision.

Clearly, the Government had no intention of maintaining the level of funding. At the first opportunity this promise has been broken. Yet only three weeks ago in the Senate the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, said:

This Government is genuinely concerned for the education of children.

Evidently this concern extends only to the sort of education that Senator Ryan endorses; it extends only to the philosophic concept of social dogma; that we shall have equality, but not excellence. She has already told us 'I do not like the pursuit of excellence. It has elitist overtones which I really dislike'.

Senator Hamer —It is a disgraceful argument made by the Minister.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —That is right. Senator Ryan believes that education should produce 'a sense of self-esteem and identity sufficient to enable individuals to resist manipulation by the massive institutions of capitalism and to make autonomous decisions'. Of course all children have the right to equality of opportunity. They also have the right to the pursuit of excellence and to bring the benefit of their achievements to the entire community. The architects of this Bill are seeking to crush the outstanding individual achievement in favour of a dreary levelling down of education to the lowest common denominator.

The method used to decide which schools should have their basic grants cut is arbitrary and unfair. The 41 schools that have had a 25 per cent cut in the level of government assistance are, apparently in the mind of this Government at least, wealthy schools. Yet by its own admission the Government has no definition of what constitutes a wealthy school. Mr Hurford, the Labor spokesman for education in February this year, said:

I do have to say at the moment the assessment of what is a 'wealthy school' is totally inadequate . . . We do not currently have an accurate assessment.

Under the previous Government schools were divided into three categories, each receiving a basic grant of 20 per cent and a further 10 per cent or 20 per cent according to the category into which they fell. The ALP, through this Bill, now seeks to divide into two the first category of schools which receive only the basic grant. One of those two groups will have its basic grant cut by 25 per cent. To decide which of the group 1 schools are to have their basic grant cut, the Government proposes a formula whereby the private disposable cash income of schools will be compared with the resources required to operate at national average school standards.

Where it is believed that private income alone will be enough to enable the school to operate at about average government school standards, government assistance to the school is to be cut. The private income of the school is calculated on the basis of one year's figures. The year used is 1981. Private income calculations include capital fees-that is, fees set aside for some specific purpose such as school improvements. Therefore, a school that perhaps has had a determined fund raising effort during 1981 to improve its facilities in some way may well now find itself on the Government's hit list. It may well be that it was raising funds through additional fees for a new gymnasium, swimming pool or some additional facility to improve the standard of education in whatever form in that school. Now that school runs the risk, of course, of being on the hit list. This formula takes no account of the distinction between what the Labor Party describes and considers as wealthy schools which may have assets that have been built up over many years and the parents who send those children to non-government schools who may or may not be wealthy. It is the parents who have to pay the school fees. Many of these parents make considerable sacrifices to send their children to non-government schools which they believe, as a result of their choice, will provide the type of education which best suits their child or children. A survey conducted by the Victorian Association of Independent Schools showed that over 56 per cent of mothers were working to enable the family income to meet school fees. The Chairman of the Association believes that may well be a conservative figure. Undoubtedly the effect of the cuts in funding will be to raise fees in the 41 schools so affected. The result of this, according to the bursar of St Catherine's School in Victoria, Mr Richard Groom, will be to make:

. . . the schools a little more elite than they already are. It will mean that people on the bottom of the income scale will drop off the schools' lists.

It will not be the rich who will suffer but the less affluent who have chosen to make very considerable personal sacrifice so as to, in many cases, give their children an opportunity of a private education which they themselves did not have in the past. Under the supposedly egalitarian policies of this Government it will soon be only the very rich who will be able to have a choice regarding their children's education. It is perhaps worth considering the way in which this Government chose to announce its proposed funding cuts. In its statement the Government stated in part:

Commonwealth Grants to high resourced non government schools are to be phased down to help meet the cost of additional grants to needy non government schools.

The Government has framed its proposals in terms of cutting funds to schools that are in the highest resource category and are mainly Protestant to provide extra funds to schools in the bottom category which are of course mainly Catholic parish schools. This can be construed only as a futile and reprehensible attempt to divert attention from the Government's own actions, and as such has been soundly rejected. In a letter to the Age the Most Reverend John Kelly, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, described the Government's actions as follows:

It has been announced that cuts will be made from the so called wealthy independent schools. But, note the cunning inbuilt contradiction, the money from these cuts will not be given to indigent Government schools, rather it will go to poorer independent schools, i.e. mainly Catholic schools. In the face of that blatant sectarian tactic, I challenge any Catholic independent school to accept this Judas money.

That, as I say, was a quote from the Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne. The Government's action has not however been without result. According to the Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little:

It has been made to appear that Catholic schools have gained advantage by depriving their friends in independent schools. What has been the result? We now have a bitter sectarianism running riot. It has been described to me as the worst in living memory.

Concern regarding these proposals has been expressed by the Central Commission of Catholic Bishops of Australia. That body represents the 45 Catholic bishops in Australia and describes the Government's proposal to reduce the basic grant for certain schools and thereby break the percentage link as 'potentially destructive of non-government schooling'. It is not just representatives of the Catholic community who have expressed their misgivings about this Government's education policy. The Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, Bishop Newell, has condemned the decisions. The National Council of Independent Schools has described the changes in funding as arbitrary and discriminatory. Most important of all, parents of children attending non-government schools have shown their fear and anxiety over the implications of the Government's policy by attending a series of mass meetings around Australia, including one at the Sydney Town Hall on 7 November which was attended by over 5,000 people. I understand one of the most outstanding speakers there was Senator Peter Baume. That meeting carried a resolution which reads in part:

This meeting applauds the spirit of co-operation and unity that has been shown by all parents in the non-government school sector, from all schools, Catholic and non Catholic, at all levels in the face of the concerted and consistent attack presently being mounted against the right of freedom of choice in education and condemns the arbitrary action of the Government in discriminating against some children and causing uncertainty and apprehension in the minds of parents and children alike.

The Government cannot justify its actions on the grounds that it is taking resources from so-called wealthy schools to fund poor non-government schools. In announcing the Government's changes in funding, Senator Ryan clearly stated that Government schools would receive an increase in funds during 1984 of 5.6 per cent compared with an increase of 1.5 per cent in funds for non-government schools during the same year. Evidently the reallocation of resources is not between poor and wealthy non-government schools but rather between government and non-government education sectors.

The Government's intention of ultimately abolishing all non-government schools is underlined by the proposal contained in the States Grants (Schools Assistance ) Bill 1983 which seeks to deny non-government schools which have attained the criteria for registration, an automatic right to obtain government funding. This proposal calls into question the long established principles of the right of every school student to share in government funds for education. A non- government school which has obtained registration will now have to show that:

The school is not likely to have a significant adverse effect on the viability of the existing Government or non-Government schools.

Thus, in an area in which a government school is adverse to competition from a non-government school, parents may now find that they cannot exercise their right to choose which school their children should attend because there is no alternative and no alternative will be allowed to the established school in their area, no matter how unsatisfactory they find that school. This is particularly distressing at a time when many parents are concerned with what they see as the declining standards of many government schools. In a gallup poll conducted in October this year, results conclusively showed that non-government schools were regarded as providing a far better education on matters of discipline, morals, personal interest in students and the basic 3Rs-reading, writing and arithmetic. This is the reason why people are prepared to sacrifice a higher standard of living in order to send their children to non-government schools. They are not satisfied with the standard of education and especially the standard of moral education their children may receive at some government schools. The Government's response to these anxieties has been to increase the burden of fees on such parents by reducing the level of funding.

Breaking the nexus leaves future funding of non-government schools at the mercy of a ministerial whim which, as we have seen, is likely to be based on ideological considerations rather than the needs of the schools. It has thrown difficulties in the path of the establishment of new non-government schools by no longer recognising the right of registered non-government schools to receive government funds. These policies have cast a cloud of anxiety and confusion over the continued existence of the dual education system in Australia. I do not suggest for one moment that the Government school system does not contain many excellent schools with many dedicated and highly competent teachers. That is not at issue. What is at issue is the right of parents to choose-to select a school of their choice-to send their children to the school which they believe will provide the best education and the best opportunities for their children. This Government would have the community believe that taxpayers are subsidising the parents of children at non-government schools. Of course, that is not the case. Without the non-government school system in Australia, the education system in Australia would be in absolute chaos and the cost of education to all Australians would rise dramatically. This Government has clearly set a course of undermining the non-government school support system to the disadvantage of all Australian taxpayers and, for that matter, all Australian non-taxpayers.